OK, Google. Listen up, Alexa. Playtime’s over. It’s time to step outside the smart home and begin to build the smart office. The same tools that make life easier and more efficient in people’s personal lives could just as well be applied in a work setting.
There are the obvious customer service applications in retail and call centers, and these are what most people are talking about. But the working world can reap more than those benefits from voice assistants, and as people grow more comfortable using that technology at home, its migration into the workplace will likely accelerate.
Plus, once the novelty wears off, organizations will start to figure out which use cases make the most sense in their context, so the application of voice tech for businesses will become more focused as the dust settles — thus creating real efficiency beyond the consumer acceptance barrier.
In a fast-paced environment like retail, business owners want to know how their business is doing right now so they can act in the moment — either to seize an unexpected opportunity or to right the ship if sales are down that day.
There are many platforms that offer to collect that data and produce real-time, actionable insights. Some business owners have embraced these, and others are still catching on. In both cases, adding voice assistants to the mix can only make the process faster and easier.
For instance, a fashion CMO may want to know how many sweaters were sold on a certain date in a certain city and what weather corresponded with those sales. Voice technology would allow her to simply ask the question out loud and receive an answer.
Customer Relationship Management
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems enable businesses to manage their relationships with customers and prospects by aggregating associated data into a central location, which is today often hosted on the cloud so all members of the team can access it in real time.
A voice-activated CRM can save employees a lot of time by giving them a direct line to the data they’re seeking — no more opening the CRM program and manually seeking the info. It can also halve the time spent on data entry, since the average typist can only enter 50 to 70 words per minute, while a speech recognition program can process twice that many.
In the early stages, according to Destination CRM, voice-activated CRM systems will be integrated with the established smart speakers: the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod. But that’s just the beginning. Soon, the author predicts, users will also have voice access to email, scheduling and recommendations for the next best customer interaction to initiate.
That’s already starting to happen thanks to a recent partnership between Amazon and Microsoft that allows customers of each company to leverage the other’s voice assistant. The partnership kicks into high gear later this year. Once it does, Alexa users will be able to ask Cortana to read their emails out loud or check or update a Microsoft Office calendar.
In fact, Microsoft Exchange was enabling users to access email and send calendar notifications to colleagues using their voice as early as 2006. But the technology has come a long way since then and may finally be poised for wider adoption.
Initially, users had to speak very clearly in a quiet space for the assistant to understand their words. Today, virtual assistants have gotten much better at picking one voice out of a crowd via natural language processing. Microphones are smart enough to remove echoes and noise, and far-field processing technology lets devices track speech content more accurately.
The Frictionless Workplace
In an office environment, some companies are already using technologies like Teem to manage meeting room space with voice commands. Employees can book a conference room, check in or extend their meeting just by asking Alexa (the system rides on Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service, or AVS).
In retail, employees can ask a voice-powered bot whether something is in stock rather than sending somebody to the back to check.
In industries like transportation, logistics, food service, construction and emergency services, which have mobile employees, voice technology can help management keep track of employees.
In an ambulance, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) can ask important real-time questions such as, “Is this hospital open?” and “Can we send a patient there?” without taking their hands or eyes off their life-or-death work.
AFK? Probably Not
While many eagerly look forward to the voice-controlled future, it will not be without its challenges, and, in some settings, it’s never going to be the right answer — no matter how good the microphones and no matter how smart voice assistants become. Ryan Duguid, Nintex SVP Technology Strategy, recently outlined some of those scenarios for BizReport.
First, the open office layout is popular today, but in a space without private offices or cubicles, voice technology will never work, Duguid said. There will be too much ambient noise, conversations may be distracting to coworkers and security and privacy will be nonexistent.
Second, in many instances, mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts are still faster than human speech. It would be foolish to replace the keyboard with voice capabilities. Like most, Nintex’s Duguid doesn’t see keyboards going away; rather, voice commands are most likely to be used in conjunction with nonverbal commands, he said.